Witchcraft and Gender in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period

Content Warning: Mentions of abuse and sexual assault

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018. I will note that I posted this on my old blog. It has been moved here as it fits better thematically.

I will note that I discuss the medieval and Early Modern period in this essay.

Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, the perception of magic and how it was used went through many different iterations, especially in regard to women and men. Generally speaking, different types of magic were used, or mostly used, exclusively by either men or by women. Some of these types of magic were more accessible to both genders, thus both genders were more likely to use them. (Please note I use the phrase “both genders” here as in medieval times the concept of being non-binary did not exist and the medieval concept of gender, while occasionally flexible, was still determined by one’s sex (Salisbury 81).) Crimes concerning the use of magic were also prescribed to different genders. How society perceived the ways men and women used magic is placed upon on misogynistic ideas that we simply cannot ignore.

During the Middle Ages, the existence of magic was well known amongst the general European population, including men, women, laity and the clergy. While “Christian writers associated magic very strongly with demons” (Rider 29), in secular society magic was comfortably intertwined with science as well as with religion (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 1). Richard Kieckhefer goes on to point out that “magic is a crossing-point where religion converges with science”. This is especially true when one takes into consideration the relationship between medicine and cunning-folk in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Smallwood 21). I will go into further detail about that later. However, the relationship between medicine and magic is also prominently seen in impotence magic, particularly in the eleventh century.

Impotence magic in the early Middle Ages was seen as a major problem for men and women alike, especially when it came to marriage. If a couple could not consummate their marriage, then that would be a perfectly valid reason for annulment (Rider 29). This put a lot of pressure on both parties, especially the woman. In one case documented by the medieval writer Hincmar of Rheims, a man who had been bewitched by his disapproving mother-in-law to be impotent, threatened to murder his wife unless the bishop granted him an annulment (Rider 32). Luckily for the man’s wife the bishop “recognized the work of the Devil” (Rider 32) and cured the man’s impotence through “penance and ‘ecclesiastical medicine’” (Rider 33). This story shows that even though women could be feared due to their use of magic, they still lacked agency over their lives due to masculine control. It also reminds the reader that men were willing to punish women who had not used magic against them if it meant they could break the charm causing them the inconvenience.

 

Harley MS 2965 f.37r charm against poison

A Charm Against Poison | Harley MS 2965 f.37r | Source: The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog

 

As previously mentioned, the relationship between magic and medicine was already intertwined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with cunning-folk. However, to fully understand that relationship, it is important to know that while ‘“cunning’ men and women were regularly prosecuted for using charms,” they were not considered to be witches (Smallwood 21), at least in the earlier Middle Ages. But by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Church had already considered cunning-folk and their folk magic to be demonic (Broedel 36). Before 1400 they were considered to be healers who used charms as medicine for “those who could not afford or appreciate the real thing” (Smallwood 21). These charms “had for the most part been orally passed down for many generations” (Smallwood 21) and amongst both genders. How “the secrets of healing” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) were passed down varied. Sometimes women could only tell them to other women or men could only tell them to other men. In certain areas, the gender of the person receiving the knowledge had to alternate every time the information was passed down (Kieckhefer Magic in the Middle Ages, 59). And even though cunning-folk “had a mercenary interest in not passing on the knowledge [about their magic] to potential clients” (Smallwood 21), this did not mean that the extent of their knowledge was kept secret.

One case where the knowledge was not kept secret was with the career, trial, and execution of Matteuccia Francisci, who also combined folk magic, medicine, and witchcraft. Matteuccia Francisci “was a well-known folk healer and magician, who specialized in…magical remedies [and] counseling for battered wives” (Broedel 37). She was so famous and sought after that “clients came to her, sometimes from out of town” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages60). Now, while she sounds like she would be an upstanding and respected member of her community, “a large number of people” (Broedel 37) that the records refer to as ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) accused her of witchcraft. Given that Matteuccia was a woman who helped abused wives, it makes one wonder if these ‘“honest and truthful citizens’” (Broedel 37) were actually the abusive husbands who wanted to get rid of the woman who was taking away their control. After all, what better way to prevent their wives from getting help then to get rid of the powerful woman helping them? This is especially true when you take into consideration Matteuccia specialized in love magic (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59), which is the equivalent of a modern date rape drug. Even so, people did not exactly appreciate having the tables turned on them. It did not help Matteuccia Francisci’s case that some of the magic she used required dubious ingredients, such as “a bone from an unbaptized baby” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59) and some of her magic transferred ailments from one person over to a completely innocent passerby (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages 59).

Ironically, cunning-folk did not just strictly use magic in their medical treatments. Their use of magic was intertwined with the Catholic Christian faith as well. Folk magic “borrowed from Catholic practices” (Davies 36) and one man, Henry Clegate of Headcorn, had even been taught to do magic by the local priest (Davies 36). Owen Davies goes on to point out that the Reformation furthered the belief that cunning-folk were practicing demonic witchcraft and not regular magic, due to the elements of Catholicism that were thought of to be magical. It did not help that during the Middle Ages a chunk of “diocesan priests, men and boys in minor orders, monks, and friars” (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages155) practiced the demonic art of necromancy. Necromancy was one type of magic that was mostly practiced by men, clergymen especially. Due to the fact they were able to gain access to this knowledge rather easily through written texts and necromancy required “some degree of learning in Latin and familiarity with ritual practices” (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20).

 

Harley MS 1526 f.5r demons monks reading

Demons and Monks | Harley MS 1526 f.5r | Source: The British Library

 

Another form of magic that was practiced by men was the art of exorcism. Exorcists were not always clergymen and they certainly “did not have the same standing in the Catholic church” (Ferber 577) as those who were ordained. The art of exorcism was not a widespread phenomenon either. For example, during the Reformation, exorcisms in France were seen as extremely creditable while in Spain and Italy it was not (Barry 20). It should be noted that during this time, French Catholicism “faced strong Protestant competition” (Barry 20) and the Catholic and Protestant faiths had very different views on witchcraft, thus on exorcisms. The Catholic Church wanted to seek “help for the witch” while Protestants “prosecuted [the witches] with comparable vigour” (Williams 81). However, whether or not exorcism was actually demonic magic, regular magic, or simply a miracle of God was hotly debated (Ferber). Either way, “many exorcists became subject to condemnation, derision, and regulation” (Ferber 575-576).

Male exorcists were not the only ones whose powers were debated about whether they were holy or demonic. One such phenomenon was ‘“positive possession”’ (Ferber 582) that afflicted mainly women. These women were thought of to be holy, yet to be possessed by demons. Needless to say, they toed the line when it came to being “seen as either the direct agents or the deluded victims of the Prince of the World, the devil” (Ferber 583). However, in the case of the mass possessions of nuns in the early modern period, it could be argued that the devil possessing these women was simply proof of how virtuous they truly were. According to Moshe Sluhovsky, it was thought that if the devil considered a group of nuns to be too good and holy, he would possess them as a way of soiling their purity. After all, if the nuns were “feared by Satan [they] therefore must be approved by God” (Sluhovsky 1394).

This is not to say that mass possessions, especially mass possessions of nuns, were considered to be the result of witchcraft. In fact, mass possessions happened a noticeable amount in both the Middle Ages and the early modern period amongst many different demographics (Sluhovsky 1381-1382). However, in a religious Christian setting, mass possessions of nuns in convents happened a significant amount more, especially when compared to mass possessions of monks (Sluhovsky 1381). Mass possessions of nuns eventually became such a common occurrence in the early modern period that writers started simply listing when and where the possessions occurred instead of including any further detail (Sluhovsky 1385).

Now, it should be recognized what the politics of the convents were like when the mass possessions occurred. Some convents were rather relaxed when it came to the living conditions for the nuns. However, some of these convents went through rather strict reforms, causing the nuns and their families to verbally protest their new living conditions (Sluhovsky 1392). Some of these reforms included “excessive mortification” and a priest who “forbade [his nuns] to eat anything but turnips throughout the [Lenten] fast” (Sluhovsky 1391). Naturally, the upper members of the clergy did not listen to the nuns or their concerns. It was only after the reforms were put in place, mass possessions of nuns happened. I suspect in actuality the possessions were not the result of Satan being angry at the nuns’ holiness; instead, it was a way for the nuns to protest the restrictive reforms as well as an opportunity to act out in the only way that could be considered safe. After all, if a demon was causing the nuns to misbehave, they could not be blamed or punished for trying to blow off some steam.

However, in the case of the nuns of St. Catherine, I do not think this to be the case. The agency of the nuns did not please someone for it was recorded that “only after the devil increased his attacks on the nuns…that the recalcitrant nuns surrendered their arrogance, accepted the reform, and [the devil] disappeared” (Sluhovsky 1390). This statement has a lot of unfortunate implications. It makes one wonder if it was not actually the devil tormenting the nuns, but the clergy who limited the nuns’ ‘“unrestricted freedom”’ in an attempt to control their behavior through fear (Sluhovsky 1390). If so, this would not be the only case where men used fear to control women they considered to be misbehaving.

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r nun and demon drowning

A Demon Drowning a Nun | Royal MS 10 E IV f.192r | Source: The British Library

 

Throughout the early modern period accusations of and trials for witchcraft slowly focused more and more on badly behaved women. It was an excellent way to control women, especially when one takes into consideration that while both men and women practiced magic, women were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft (Kieckhefer, “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West” 20). In contrast, men were much more likely to be accused and prosecuted for heresy (Broedel 47). It should also be noted that of the women accused of witchcraft, more often than not, it was women who were considered undesirable to society. Women in this category included women in poverty, older women, and women who were either suspected of having or confirmed to be infected with syphilis (Ross). These three categories were undesirable in different ways, however, the last two had some overlap.

Eric B. Ross argues that dementia from syphilis was a contributing factor in older women’s strange behavior that led them to be accused of witchcraft. While this may or may not be true, I argue that their strange behavior could have also been a result of regular dementia and other age-related cognitive diseases. Older women “who were accused of witchcraft…were described as miserable, lewd, and generally antisocial” (Ross 336). Anyone who has ever visited an elderly relative suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can safely confirm this description matches the cognitive diseases. It also does not help that when women are older they are no longer considered beautiful, therefore they are considered worthless and a burden.

Overall, while magic was a liberating tool for women or men who felt trapped in their living situation, it was a dangerous one that came with many risks. The risks were especially high for women in the early modern period. Whether it was being possessed by demons proving your holiness, creating love magic, causing impotence, or seeing into the future, someone would eventually be threatened by your abilities. Their fear of your power could very likely cause your downfall.

 

 

Sources:

Barry, Jonathan. “Introduction: Keith Thomas and the Problem of Witchcraft.” Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Culture and Belief, edited by Jonathan Barry et al., Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 1–45.

Broedel, Hans Peter. “Fifteenth-Century Witch Beliefs.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 32–49.

Davies, Owen. Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum, 2003.

Ferber, Sarah. “Demonic Possession, Exorcism, and Witchcraft.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 575–592.

Kieckhefer, Richard. “Magic and its Hazards in the Late Medieval West.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 13–31.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Rider, Catherine. “Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages.” Oxford Scholarship Online, 2006, pp. 31–52.

Ross, Eric B. “Syphilis, Misogyny, and Witchcraft in 16th Century Europe.” Current Anthropology , vol. 36, no. 2, Apr. 1995, pp. 333–337.

Salisbury, Joyce E. “Gendered Sexuality.” Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, edited by Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Routledge, 2006, pp. 81–99.

Sluhovsky, Moshe. “The Devil in the Convent.” The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 5, Dec. 2002, pp. 1379–1411., doi:10.1086/532851.

Smallwood, T.M. “The Transmission of Charms in English, Medieval and Modern.” Charms and Charming in Europe, edited by Jonathan Roper, Palgrave McMillan, 2004.

Williams, Gerhild Scholz. “Demonologies.” The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America, edited by Brian P. Levack, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 69–82.

 

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Thirty-Five, A Monk’s Weekly Kitchen Duty

Whether it is a school, nursing home, hospital, or monastery, if people are there for extended periods of time, it’s important to have a fully staffed kitchen. Chapter Thirty-Five of The Rule of Saint Benedict, instructs monks on who should work in the kitchen, how long they should do so, what their duties are, and other minor details concerning the job.

 

be732339dbfff23723b3b6143eae4135

Working in the Kitchen | Source: Pinterest.com

 

The text begins by saying “let the brethren wait on one another in turn, so that none be excused from the work of the kitchen” (pg. 50). In theory, every monk is required to do the laborious tasks of making meals for the entire monastery. I say in theory because Saint Benedict puts in an exception for monks “prevented by sickness” (pg. 50). So if a monk is sick he does not have to work in the kitchen that week. This is quite practical as a sick person should not be touching the food others are going to eat. (It’s a shame restaurants in the United States don’t follow this rule!)

Because every monk is supposed to do kitchen work, Saint Benedict advises “assistance be given to the weak” (pg. 50). Like in Chapter Thirty-Four, the monkish reader is reminded to help the brethren who need it so “they may not do their work with sadness” (pg. 50). Accommodations must be made so no one gets hurt.

That being said, Saint Benedict does make two more exceptions regarding those who can skip kitchen duty. The first person is the cellarer. But he can only “be excused from work in the kitchen” if “the community be large” (pg. 51). (A large community is twelve or more monks.) The second exception is monks who are “occupied in more urgent business” (pg. 51). I assume this means monks who are off on important business or other such tasks that cannot be avoided.

The text then specifies that “the rest serve each other in turn with all charity” (pg. 51). If I had to guess, I think Saint Benedict is calling out the whiners again!

Making food isn’t the weekly servers’ only duty. On Saturday, a monk’s last day in the kitchen, he is to clean “all things” (pg. 51). This includes washing the towels the monks use to “dry their hands and feet” as well as “the feet of all” (pg. 51). Luckily for the weekly server, he doesn’t have to wash everyone’s feet by himself. The monk “who is coming in” helps him. Once a monk’s kitchen duty is finished, he returns “the vessels of his office, clean and whole” (pg. 51) to the Cellarer. Once he is sure everything is there, the Cellarer gives the supplies to the next weekly server.

Like the catering company I used to work for, Saint Benedict knows the importance of feeding servers before the big dinner:

“Let the weekly servers take each a cup of drink and a piece of bread over and above the appointed portion, one hour before the time for reflection, that so they may serve their brethren, when the hour cometh, without murmuring or great labor.” (pg. 51)

After all, if you let your servers go hungry before they handle all that food, they may be tempted to take a bit for themselves!

Finally, after Lauds on Sunday (a little after dawn), “the incoming and the outgoing servers [are to] fall on their knees before all…and ask their prayers” (pg. 51). The monk who already served that week says a prayer thanking God for His help three times before being blessed. Once that is over, the incoming server will say a different prayer, asking for God’s help. He will also say it three times before he too is blessed.

 

 

Main Source:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

Solesme Abbey’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict can be found here as a PDF. I used this to cross-check my translation.

For some reason, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict wasn’t loading today. However, the Wayback Machine has a screenshot of the usual PDF that I reference. You can access that screenshot here. (You have to scroll down to see the text.) I used this to cross-check my translation.

Déjà vu: How The Conflicts in the Wars of the Roses Were Similar Yet Slightly Different

This is something I wrote while studying at Oxford. It was written in May 2018.

 

The English conflicts occurring in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 had several differences between the two. The main way these conflicts were different were the personalities of the two kings who ruled during this time. Henry VI and Edward IV could not be any more different from each other in personality, appearance, how they became king, and how they acted as king. Despite this, the conflicts in 1459-1461 and 1469-1471 during the Wars of the Roses have more similarities than differences.

 

Plucking_the_Red_and_White_Roses,_by_Henry_Payne

Plucking the Red and White Roses in the Old Temple Gardens (based on a scene in William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI) | Painting by Henry Payne | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

One way the conflicts were similar was the state of the economy before each rebellion happened. Throughout Henry VI’s reign, the economy of England gradually fell into increasingly terrible shape (Carpenter 32). England had been fighting a war with France since 1337, which England eventually lost during Henry VI’s reign. Needless to say, “the financial burden imposed by the Hundred Years War had had an effect upon the economic framework surrounding the position of the Crown” (Sadler 18). Due to the losses of English territories in France, taxpayers understandably did not want to give money to a war they knew they would no longer win (Carpenter 105). It also did not help that “despite [Henry VI’s] financial difficulties” and the setbacks the queen had when collecting her own income, “Margaret of Anjou’s household was larger and more lavish than that of any other medieval queen, save only Isabella of France” (Crawford 120). It should be noted that the state of the economy was not the primary cause of the Wars of the Roses. However, the economy was “one of the causes of [Henry VI’s] political weaknesses” (Britnell 56).

Before the second conflict occurred, Edward IV was tasked with trying to improve the economic disaster Henry VI left behind. This included paying off Henry VI’s massive debts. Unfortunately for Edward IV, he “had no solution to the economic crisis, which was still largely shaped by external factors” (Hicks 173). And like Henry VI’s government, anger with Edward IV’s government “coincided with a crisis in the export economy and involved clothmaking [sic] centres [sic] in the West of England” (Britnell 57). Also like Henry VI, Edward IV lived outside of his means. Michael Hicks reports that “Edward was urged…to reserve enough lands to cover his ordinary charges without recourse to his ‘…commons and subjects’” (175). Edward IV did not do this. Instead, he claimed that England would go back to war with France to regain their lost territories, collected his people’s taxes, and never actually went to war (Grummitt 221).

Another way the conflicts were similar was the way Henry VI and Edward IV punished those who tried to/eventually did overthrow them, especially those who were the leaders of the rebellion against their kingship. During the 1450s, Henry VI pardoned Richard, Duke of York several times after York attempted to overthrow the government while claiming he was doing so to protect the king from “the corrupt government of…traitors” (Grummitt 197). But York’s so-called protests looked very much like “treasonable rebellion” (Hicks 102). York was aware of this so “he formally swore allegiance to the king on the sacraments before witnesses…had his oath publicly certified, and dispatched the record to the king” (Hicks 102). While Henry VI did summon York to talk about his concerns, York refused to meet with the king (Hicks 102). Instead, York kept insisting “their lives were endangered by traitors about the king, they were marching for justice, both for themselves and for the commonwealth” (Grummitt 196).

 

A_Chronicle_of_England_-_Page_400_-_Henry_VI_and_the_Dukes_of_York_and_Somerset

Henry VI sits while Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Edmund Beaufort, 2nd Duke of Somerset, have an argument. | Caption from Wikipedia | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Apparently, this explanation was enough for Henry VI and the nobility to think York was not a traitor the first few times he led rebellions. Or at the very least, he was not legally considered a traitor. Even so, York was obviously a threat that Henry VI and the nobility repeatedly chose to ignore. And not only did they ignore the threat York posed, in March of 1454, “it was agreed in parliament that [York] should assume the title and duties of ‘protector and governor of the realm’ during the king’s incapacity” (Grummitt 173)! It should have been clear to everyone that York wanted the throne, or at the very least, York wanted a new king after he tried to rebel the second time. Even though “Lords were unwilling to convict noblemen like themselves” (Hicks 101), it makes one wonder exactly why Henry VI did not execute York after he went back on his word to the king, if not the second time, then the times after that.

Edward IV also forgave those who betrayed him. The major two traitors were Edward IV’s kingmaker, the Earl of Warwick and his brother, George Duke of Clarence. However we must keep in mind, unlike Henry VI who did not really do anything to actively frustrate his supporters—it was mostly his inaction—Edward IV’s actions did. Edward IV made the severe mistake of alienating his kingmaker and his brother. Hicks makes the observation that before Warwick’s coup in 1469, “Edward had to negotiate with Warwick like a separate potentate, just as had Henry VI with the Duke of York a decade earlier” (189). Warwick also used York’s arguments to say why his 1469 coup was not really a coup (Hicks 191). Despite all this, in February 1470 Edward IV pardoned the Earl of Warwick and his brother, Duke of Clarence for their coup. Unfortunately for Edward IV, Warwick still was not happy and rebelled again, this time overthrowing Edward IV and reinstating Henry VI as king. However, Edward IV managed to take back his throne and apparently before the Battle of Barnet, “the duke of Clarence, King Edward’s brother, was quietly reconciled with the king” (Crowland Chronicles125). Warwick was killed during this battle.

Another similarity between the conflicts is how each king got captured by the enemy. In the 1459-1461 conflict, Henry VI was captured and held in the Tower of London “where he was kept as a prisoner” (Grummitt 209). While in the 1469-1471 conflict, “King Edward…had been captured at a village near Coventry…and then he was sent to Warwick castle where he was held prisoner (Crowland Chronicles 117). However, one main difference between the two scenarios is that Henry VI was kept in the Tower of London for nearly half a decade after he was overthrown in 1461 (Grummitt 209) while Edward IV does not seem to have been held prisoner for that long. It is also important to note that Edward IV “managed not simply to escape but to get himself released with the specific approval of the earl of Warwick himself” (Crowland Chronicles 117).

 

MS_Ghent_-_Battle_of_Tewkesbury-3

The Battle of Tewkesbury | MS Ghent | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Now, while the conflicts were mostly similar in nature, they had a few other minor differences that resulted in major consequences. One such difference would be how long it took for each conflict to come to fruition. The rebellions in 1459-1461 took years for the tensions to boil over into an all-out civil war. This could because of the fact York’s rebellions kept failing and if he wanted to stay alive, he had to claim he was rebelling for the sake of the king, not against the king. However, once York’s true intentions were known, he could no longer pretend he was not committing treason. After all, once York acknowledged he committed treason, if he did not win the throne, then he would be killed. At that point, there was no going back for York. In contrast, the earl of Warwick and the duke of Clarence organized the rebellion against Edward IV in “only six months in 1469-1470—and perhaps much less, in 1469 itself” (Hicks 168). The urgency of this conflict could be because unlike Henry VI, Edward IV would know what was about to happen.

Now, the length of the two conflicts’ buildups could also have to do with the kings’ lineages. Even though Henry VI was not considered a good king, he came from an already established dynasty of kings. While Edward IV was also descended from Edward III, Henry VI’s father and grandfather had both been kings before him. However, both Henry IV, Henry VI’s grandfather, and Henry V, Henry VI’s father were usurpers (Carpenter 67-68). But what gave Henry VI the advantage in his own kingship, was the fact his father, Henry V, was considered an excellent king and was well respected (Carpenter 79). This was not the same for Edward IV. At least, it was not the same before the conflict of 1469-1471. Edward IV was a usurper. Unlike Henry VI, Edward IV could not rely on his pedigree alone to gain the respect of the nobility. Edward IV has to actually work for it. However, due to the conflict during 1469-1471, it is clear that during the first part of his reign Edward IV was not particularly worried about keeping the people who helped him get the throne happy.

The amounts of similarities between the two conflicts outweigh the differences. Both kings had to face the same struggles of being king, however, each king reacted in completely different ways to the problems. Henry VI essentially let England’s economy crumble while Edward IV made an attempt to fix it during his first reign. Granted, it was a very weak attempt and only during his second reign would the economy improve, but it was an attempt nonetheless. The ways Henry VI and Edward IV treated those who committed treason against them is also reflective of what kind of king they were. Henry VI acted very weakly under the guise of mercy, while Edward IV seemed to have a ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ mindset. It is also interesting how each side treated the enemy king. The Yorks were not merciful while the Lancasters (or at least the Warwicks) were.

 

 

 

Sources:

Britnell, R.H. “The Economic Context”. The Wars of the Roses. edited by A.J. Pollard. MacMillan Press, 1995. pp. 41-64

Carpenter, Christine. The Wars of the Roses: Politics and the Constitution in England, C.1437-1509. Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Crawford, Anne, editor. Letters of the Queens of England. Sutton Publishing Limited, 2002.

Pronay, Nicholas, and John Cox, editors. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations: 1459-1486. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1986.

Grummitt, David. Henry VI. Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Hicks, Michael. The Wars of the Roses. Yale University Press. 2010.

Sadler, John. The Red Rose and the White. Pearson Educated Limited. 2010.

Gender, Crime, and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Content Warning: Mentions of Sexual Assault

This is something I wrote while studying abroad at Oxford. It’s an older essay, written in May 2018.

 

Studying medieval crime allows us to see into the world of the average person living during this time period. It also allows us to study people who otherwise would have been lost to history if it had not been for the records detailing the wrongs people had either done or had done to them. These records give us a deeper insight into the gendered world of the Middle Ages. Because exactly like in modern times, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered. Certain crimes were more likely to be committed by men than women and vise versa. The gender of the person committing the crime could affect the punishment the criminal would receive. Reactions to crimes, including slander, were gendered as well.

 

Common_Pleas

An illuminated manuscript of the Court of Common Pleas in session | Source: Wikipedia Commons

 

Defamation lawsuits were common occurrences in the Middle Ages. While “men and women tended to take different slanders to court” (Neal 186), these types of lawsuits were socially acceptable and legal ways for people to react against insults that might have had or did have an effect on the person’s everyday life. Now, while the majority of men’s lawsuits regarded “accusations or insinuations of dishonesty, especially of theft” (Neal 186), a defamation lawsuit was also an excellent way to react to an insult concerning a man’s masculinity without punching someone or resorting to other acts of physical violence. Another advantage of the defamation lawsuit was if the man won, not only did he have a court legally prove the insult was wrong and the insulter was lying, he would also get monetary compensation. However, not all of these lawsuits were brought forth by men. Some men were sued by the woman they sexually slandered and her witnesses included men the defendant had also slandered.

One such lawsuit took place in Sturrey in 1415. A woman named Alice Yarewell sued a man named John Maldon who had “declared…she was a common whore” (Neal 193) after both of her marriage prospects believed the rumor. In the process of telling men Alice Yarewell was a whore, John Maldon also claimed that another man who slept with Alice, Richard Bokeland, was not good at sex. While “John Maldon scored a few points by bragging about a sexual conquest” and “using the same story to belittle Richard Bokeland, he scored a few more” (Neal 193), things ended up backfiring for John when Alice sued him with Richard testifying as her witness.

This entire court case is extremely gendered. It involves a man ruining a woman’s reputation and her future solely based on her sexuality, while “at first…[there was] no shame or perceived danger…for these mature men in frankly discussing illicit sexual conduct” (Neal 194). It was only when Alice Yarewell could not get married and John Maldon spent the entire summer telling the story of his sexual conquest over and over again (Neal 194) did he face some consequences of his actions. Another aspect of the lawsuit being gendered is the fact Richard Bokeland probably did not testify to help Alice out of the goodness of his heart. The fact that we only know that Richard Bokeland exists, a man who would have otherwise been lost to history, is because he wanted to make sure his entire community knew he was not bad in bed as John Maldon claimed. This is significant because it implies that medieval men could freely talk about their sex lives without being considered less than. In contrast, women in medieval society could not testify that they were good at having sex, particularly unmarried sex, without being considered dirty and defiled.

 

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The Stocks at Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK | Source: Viktor Athelstan

 

Women who were commonly known to have what was considered deviant sex (fornication) and like it were considered whores. This was emphasized by the medieval view of prostitutes. According to Ruth Mazo Karras “in the Middle Ages…a woman was a prostitute (meretrix) because she was a lustful woman, not because of the specific behavior of accepting money for sex” (Karras 162). The fear and disgust of prostitutes, thus unmarried but sexually active women, led to laws being created to physically distinguish these women through marked items of clothing (Karras 164). However, by making prostitutes wear clothes distinguishing them as prostitutes it not only shamed them but had an unintended effect: now potential customers knew who to go to when they wanted to buy sex.

Now, female prostitutes were not the only ones who were considered deviant. Men who had sex with other men were also thought to be practicing deviant sexual behavior (Karras 161). However, unlike prostitutes, the behavior of men who had sex with other men was considered just that: behavior. The idea “that sexual acts between men were the markers of a certain type of person” (Karras 162) did not exist. Compare that concept to the idea it was a prostitute’s “sinfulness [that] made her behave badly, her behavior did not classify her as a sinner” (Karras 162). The medieval belief was that being lustful and sinful was inherently part of a woman’s nature verses for men the same lustfulness was merely behavior one could control. This certainly relates to the idea that to be masculine meant that a man had lots of “self-restraint” (Neal 198).

But not all men had the self-restraint needed to be masculine. In late medieval Bologna, theft was mostly a crime committed by men. Trevor Dean found that “in the period 1450-69, 261 named individuals were tried, and mostly convicted, of theft [and] of these, 251 were male, and 10 (4 per cent) were female” (403). This implies that thefts were an extremely masculine crime, or at the very least, male thieves in Bologna were terrible at thieving without getting caught. And contrary to popular belief, when women in Bologna stole, they did not just steal items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) such as food and other “household goods” (Dean 404). In fact, “it is the men, not the women who steal food for immediate consumption” (Dean 405). When you disregard the cases of men stealing food, both Bologna men and women stole the same sorts of items. These items include “coins, jewels, cloth and clothing” (Dean 405-406).

Medieval English women were documented to have stolen similar items as their Italian counterparts as well. Court documents from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show that women stole coins, cloth, and wool pelts (Goldberg 243-246). However, quite a few English women were caught stealing items meant for “immediate consumption” (Dean 399) as well as “household goods” (Dean 404). Fourteenth-century peace rolls from Lincoln recorded that a woman named Margaret de Staynrop stole a brass pot and that she will be hanged for doing so (Goldberg 243). English documents from other towns recorded women being tried for stealing malt, “18 geese,” “spoons…a platter, a pewter salt” (Goldberg 244), “a bushel of beans,” another “brass pot and a plate…a cloak,” “one blanket…and other necessaries,” chickens (Goldberg 245) and other types of livestock (Goldberg 246) as well as “a brazen pan, three pecks of wheat, and a loaf of bread” (Goldberg 246). It appears that English medieval women were more likely to steal things related to the domestic sphere than Italian women in Bologna. The implication is that these women did not have access to goods that they needed.

 

 

Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r woman being abducted by wild man

A Woman Being Abducted by a Wild Man | Royal MS 10 E IV f.72r | Source: The British Library

 

Physical items were not the only things that could be stolen in the Middle Ages. The gendered crime of ravishment included the theft of people. Ravishment did not just happen to wives. Heirs of both genders who were still in their minority could be ravished too. Now, the definition of ravishment in the medieval period did not mean rape, however, on occasion rape happened while a woman was being ravished (Walker 237). However, sometimes ravishment, especially in the case of women who were of age, was consensual. In fact, “women allowed themselves to be abducted in order to affirm their own choice of a husband and force their families to accept the relationship” (Walker 237). Women also “allowed themselves to be abducted in order to leave their husbands” (Walker 237-238). Due to the fact married women were considered property of their husbands, these records show that the only way for a medieval woman to chose who to marry or to leave an abusive situation was to plan and commit what society and the law considered a crime. It is interesting to note that whenever one of these “consensual abductions” (Walker 239) occurred, the woman trying to leave her husband was not forced to go back to him. Instead the woman’s husband “had to be satisfied with damages that were usually close in the amount to the value of the chattels” (Walker 246). In contrast, underage heirs who had been ravished “could be recovered as well as damages” (Walker 246).

In conclusion, crime in the Middle Ages was gendered in different ways depending on the century and the location of the crime. Who committed crimes, what kinds of crimes they committed and the punishment of such crimes depended on what the negative effect of a person’s actions was (perceived or otherwise). Defamation lawsuits were an excellent way to remind people, men in particular, that their speech had consequences, even if they did not feel those consequences themselves. Persecution of sexual deviancy kept people in check, even if sexuality was thought of as mere behavior for men or something that was part of your morality for women. Which sex committed crimes further enforced the idea of medieval masculinity and femininity, even if these ideas seemed to be reversed in certain European locations. Finally, the fact that women were considered property was further emphasized by the punishment of ravishment: paying the man the property damage of the woman you “stole”.

 

 

Sources:

Dean, Trevor. “Theft and Gender in Late Medieval Bologna.” Gender & History, vol.20, No.2 August 2008, pp. 399–415.

Goldberg, P. J. P., editor. “Law and Custom”. Women in England, c. 1275-1525: Documentary Sources. Manchester University Press, 1995, pp. 223-260.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Prostitution and the Question of Sexual Identity in Medieval Europe”. Journal of Women’s History 11. 1999, pp. 159-171.

Neal, Derek. “Husbands and Priests: Masculinity, Sexuality, and Defamation in Late Medieval England”. The Hands of the Tongue: Essays on Deviant Speech. edited by E. Craun. Kalamazoo. 2007, pp. 185-208.

Walker, Sue Sheridan. “Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practices in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England”. Journal of Medieval History. 13. 1987, pp. 237-250.

 

Further Reading:

Cannon, Christopher. “The Rights of Medieval English Women: Crime and the Issue of Representation”. Medieval Crime and Social Control. edited by B.A. Hanawalt and D. Wallace. University of Minnesota Press. 1998. pp. 156-185.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. Of Good and Ill Repute: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England. Oxford University Press. 1998.

Hanawalt, Barbara A.. “Violence in the Domestic Milieu of Late Medieval England”. Violence in Medieval Society. edited by Richard W. Kaeuper. Boydell Press. 2000, pp. 197-214.

Medieval May Day Traditions

Back in the spring of 2018, I studied abroad at the University of Oxford. At first, I wasn’t aware of the festivities that would happen all across the city. Luckily one of my roommates told me about the May Morning celebrations the night before. At 6am, the Magdalen College Choir sings Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the Magdalen Tower. I was fortunate enough to witness that year’s event. Due to the Coronavirus, Oxford’s May Morning 2020 has been canceled, but I recommend watching one of the many YouTube videos of past celebrations. It’s a beautifully haunting experience that has been stuck in my mind ever since.

While Hymnus Eucharisticus was written during the 17th century, the tradition of singing from the top of Magdalen Tower goes back 500 years. Witnessing this made me wonder about other European May Day celebrations that occurred in the Middle Ages and are still happening today.

Unfortunately, I  haven’t been able to find a lot of solid sources for earlier medieval traditions, so I will be focusing on two traditions from the late Middle Ages. I will note that it’s possible (and very probable) that these traditions were happening earlier than the earliest known record of them.

The Maypole

Our first tradition is the maypole. It’s a tall wooden pole that is decorated with flowers, greenery, and ribbons. During the festivities, people will dance around it, twisting the ribbons into complex patterns around the pole. It should be noted that different places in Europe put them up at different times (for example in Scandinavia maypoles are a Midsummer tradition).

maypole-dancers-at-the-bavarian-celebration-of-spring-festival-in-leavenworth-49f77e

Maypole dancers at the Bavarian Celebration of Spring festival in Leavenworth, Washington | Source: PICRYL.com

No one is quite sure when the maypole became a tradition in Britain. The earliest concrete written references to the maypole date back to the 14th century. Interestingly enough, these references occur in English and Welsh poetry. One poem is by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd and the other is by Geoffrey Chaucer. In Dafydd’s work, the maypole is a birch tree while in Chaucer’s work it is a permanent maypole erected in London.

There are mentions of possible maypoles in medieval legal documents, but due to misreadings and Middle English’s lack of standardized spelling, it can’t be said for sure if the authors were referring to maypoles. (They may have been referring to a pool of water, for example.)

Morris Dancers

Morris dancing is a folk dance that includes one person playing an instrument while the rest of the group performs in costume. The dancers I saw in Oxford wore white, silly hats, and had bells tied to their shins. As the music is played, the dancers use the bells and big sticks to add to the melody.

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Morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England. (Exeter Morris Men) |Photo by Adrian Pingstone | Source: Wikipedia

The tradition is not without controversy. Border Morris dancers (usually found near the English-Welsh border) wear blackface. This seems to be slowly changing as festivals are starting to ban blackface. However, not all dancers do this. (I will add that the morris dancers I saw were not wearing blackface.)

The earliest known reference to morris dancers dates back to the year 1448 in an inventory for Sir John Fastolf’s castle. He owned a tapestry with morris dancers on it. If the dancers were on an item like this, then the tradition must be older than 1448.